Michigan's Late-Season Whitetails

Michigan's Late-Season Whitetails

Are you still looking to put some venison in the freezer? Well, you're in luck. If you have a muzzleloader or a bow, just head for these counties! (December 2005)

Photo by Mark Werner

If you haven't filled a tag by December, don't put away your deer knife just yet. You still have an excellent chance of putting venison in the freezer, especially if you are willing to hunt in Region 3.

It will be legal to hunt whitetails with firearms in 16 southern counties from Dec. 2 through Jan. 1, 2006. Every county in the region on both public and private land will be open to a special expanded muzzleloader hunt during Dec. 2-18. This hunt, in Region 3 only, is a week longer than normal this year -- lasting for 17 days instead of 10 -- to increase the harvest of antlerless deer. From two-thirds to three-fourths of the whitetails killed in Region 3 during past seasons have been antlerless, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Both unused buck and doe tags are valid during this blackpowder season. Antlerless tags must be valid for the county you will be hunting in.

From Dec. 19 through Jan. 1, centerfire shotguns and handguns in addition to muzzleloaders will be legal for deer hunting on private land only in 16 southern Michigan counties where deer numbers are considered too high by the DNR. Only antlerless deer are legal during this hunt. Hunters must possess an antlerless permit valid for the county in which they are hunting to shoot does and fawns.

The bulk of the counties where the DNR hopes to boost the deer harvest on private land among gun hunters during late December are in the Southwestern District. They are Kent, Ottawa, Barry, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Branch and St. Joseph counties. Five counties in the South-Central District are open to the extended firearms antlerless hunt -- Hillsdale, Lenawee, Jackson, Washtenaw and Ionia. Four more counties will be open to the late-season hunting opportunity. Two are in the Southeastern District -- Oakland and Lapeer. The final two -- Tuscola and Sanilac -- are in the Saginaw Bay District.

Since only private land is open during this late-season firearms hunt, it's important to obtain permission to hunt ahead of time, if you don't already have access to a parcel of private land. DNR biologists in these districts may be able to direct hunters to farmland where property owners want help reducing deer numbers.

Based on final DNR harvest estimates from the 2004 muzzleloader season, the potential for the extended frontloader hunt in Region 3 to significantly increase the deer harvest in that portion of our state is excellent. With the 10-day season length that has been in effect for years, the blackpowder deer harvest in southern counties went up by 12.1 percent in 2004 compared to 2003. An estimated 28,482 bucks and does were bagged by muzzleloader hunters in Region 3 last fall versus 25,404 the year before.

The bulk of the kill during the 10 days in 2004 was composed of 21,556 antlerless deer versus 19,265 does and fawns taken in 2003. The tally of antlered bucks for last fall's muzzleloader hunt in Region 3 was 6,926 compared to 6,139 in 2003.

Deer numbers continue to be strongest in Region 3. That's the only region in our state where late-season hunting success increased last year. The harvest decreased in Region 1 and Region 2.

The greatest increase in the muzzleloader deer harvest, percentage-wise, during 2004 was in the Southeastern District. The kill went up by 25 percent in those counties from the year before. The harvest was composed of 3,424 bucks and does compared to 2,740 for 2003.

The counties that compose the Southeastern District are Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Monroe. As already mentioned, Lapeer and Oakland counties have the highest deer numbers in that district.

Although the blackpowder kill went up by 16.5 percent in the South-Central District, the increased harvest in terms of deer numbers was much greater than in the southeast because the South-Central District is larger in size. An estimated 10,682 whitetails were tagged during the muzzleloader hunt in south-central counties during 2004 versus 9,169 during 2003. Counties in the South-Central District are Hillsdale, Lenawee, Washtenaw, Jackson, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Shiawassee, Clinton, Ionia, Gratiot and Montcalm.

The blackpowder harvest also went up by 16.5 percent in the Saginaw Bay District during 2004. All but three counties in that district -- Clare, Gladwin and Arenac -- are in Region 3. The remaining counties from that district are Saginaw, Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron, Bay, Midland and Isabella. Muzzleloader hunters bagged an estimated 8,105 deer in this district last fall and 6,957 during 2003.

Interestingly, there was little change in the blackpowder season harvest over the past two years in the Southwestern District, which is the district that now has the greatest number of counties with whitetail populations higher than desired. Blackpowder hunters only took 1.5 percent more deer from that district last fall than the year before. The estimated kill was 8,488 during 2004 versus 8,361 for 2003. Perhaps that lower rate of change in the late-season harvest is why deer numbers now require more attention from hunters. The presence of uncut cornfields may have protected more whitetails there than elsewhere. The counties in the Southwestern District are Branch, St. Joseph, Cass, Berrien, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Van Buren, Barry, Allegan, Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon.

As a reflection of how healthy the deer herd is in Region 3, the whitetail harvest during the late-season firearms antlerless-only hunt also increased significantly during 2004. DNR estimates show that the kill for that season in the Southeastern District went up by a whopping 39.2 percent (1,043 versus 750). An increase of 27.8 percent was experienced in the South-Central District (2,890 compared to 2,262) and 17.4 percent in the Southwestern District (4,347 versus 3,704).

The Saginaw Bay District is the only one in Region 3 that experienced a decline in the harvest of antlerless deer during the late December firearms season. The 515 does and fawns estimated taken for that hunt in 2004 were 21.6 percent lower than the 657 recorded during 2003.

Since the number of muzzleloader hunters who participated in the 2004 season was up statewide, it's clear that the presence of more deer in Region 3 was the main factor responsible for the increased harvest there. Although, the fact that the increase in hunter numbers was greatest in Region 3 had to play somewhat a role in how high the kill was. An increase of 7.1 percent in participants was experienced in southern counties between 2003 and 2004. The DNR estimated 124,191 blackpowder hunters took part in t

he hunt last December compared to 115,922 the year before.

The number of muzzleloader hunters went up by 6.6 percent in Region 1 (25,537 versus 23, 966). They increased by 5.6 percent in Region 2 (66,015 compared to 62,505).

You don't have to hunt in Region 3 to fill a late-season tag, of course. Plenty of hunting is also available all across Michigan. Bowhunters can try their luck statewide from Dec. 1 through Jan. 1. The 10-day U.P. muzzleloader hunt starts Dec. 2. In the northern L.P., or Region 2, the 10-day blackpowder season begins Dec. 9.

On a positive note, the harvest of antlered bucks during the muzzleloader hunt did go up last December in the eastern U.P. compared to the year before, according to DNR estimates. The buck kill in that portion of Region 1 increased by 24.5 percent during that 10-day season. In terms of deer numbers though, that only represents a little more than 100 critters. Nonetheless, it was an improvement from the year before.

Blackpowder hunters killed an estimated 562 antlered bucks in the eastern U.P. during December 2004 compared to 451 during 2003. There was a slight decline (5.8 percent) in the number of antlerless deer tagged in that district (710 versus 754).

Counties that make up the Eastern U.P. District are Schoolcraft, Mackinac, Chippewa and Luce. Best late-season hunting in this district will be in Mackinac and Chippewa counties and the southern half of Schoolcraft.

Although the overall harvest in the eastern portion of Region 1 was up by 5.4 percent, that increase was offset by a greater decline in the muzzleloader kill for the western U.P. The kill there was down 19.3 percent. An estimated 3,661 bucks and does were bagged during the 2004 frontloader season in the west compared to 4,535 in 2003. There were 1,114 bucks bagged in the west with muzzleloaders last December compared to 1,449 the year before. The tally for antlerless deer in that district dropped to 2,548 from 3,086. Counties that make up the Western U.P. District are Delta, Menominee, Dickinson, Iron, Alger, Marquette, Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon and Gogebic. Best December hunting in this district will be found in Delta, Dickinson, Iron and Menominee counties.

Late-season deer hunting success in Region 1 is tied closely to the weather. If there's a lot of snow and cold weather, deer begin moving toward winter yarding areas, making them more vulnerable to hunters. If there's little to no snow and mild weather, whitetails remain on fall range and December hunting is usually poor. It appears as though late-season weather conditions during 2004 favored December hunters in the eastern U.P. more than the west. Another factor that played a role in the slightly better buck harvest in the east last December is overall deer numbers did not decline as much as in the west.

Special antler restrictions are in effect for late-season muzzleloaders and bowhunters on five deer management units (DMUs) in Region 1. On Drummond Island at the eastern end of the U.P., bucks must have at least one forked antler, with the forks being at least 1-inch long to be legal. On four more DMUs (122, 152, 155 and 252), bucks have to have at least 3 points an inch long on one antler to be legal. Refer to a DNR map of these DMUs for their boundaries.

This is the fifth and possibly last year for experimental antler restrictions in the four units requiring bucks to have a minimum of 3 points on one antler to be legal. These stringent antler restrictions are basically unnecessary, in my opinion, since winters have more impact on managing the number of whitetails present -- including bucks -- than hunters. The special rules may be eliminated by the 2006 season.

Late-season weather conditions also play a role in December deer hunting success in Region 2 and Region 3. The colder and snowier it is, the more active whitetails become. They have to eat more to meet their higher energy demands, sometimes moving to feeding areas earlier than they otherwise would.

Cold and snow during the 2004 muzzleloader season made it possible for Josh Fritz from Owendale to bag a Boone and Crockett-qualifying buck in Huron County on Dec. 17. The 21-pointer had a gross score of 204 2/8 and netted 198 4/8 inches. He also saw more does during the cold weather than he had earlier in the fall. The story behind Josh's exceptional hunt begins on page 17 of this edition of Michigan Sportsman.

The muzzleloader kill was down 13.8 percent in Region 2 during 2004. The DNR estimated 9,592 bucks and does were taken by blackpowder hunters in that region compared to 11,129 in 2003. The number of bucks bagged by blackpowder hunters in the region was down 14.1 percent (2,190 versus 2,549) and the tally of antlerless deer was down by 13.7 percent (7,402 compared to 8,580).

The kill was off by 13.6 percent in the Northeastern District and 26.5 percent for the Northwestern District. The tally of deer of both sexes from the northeast was 3,585 last December versus 4,150 for 2003. The buck kill was close to the same for both years (962 compared to 981), but the antlerless harvest was down 17.2 percent (2,623 versus 3,168).

In the northwest, a total of 3,791 deer of both sexes were shot during 2004 compared to 5,157 for 2003. The number of bucks bagged in the Northwestern District during the 2004 muzzleloader season was down 6.9 percent (937 compared to 1,006), but the take of antlerless animals declined by 31.2 percent (2,855 versus 4,151).

Counties in the Northeastern District are Iosco, Ogemaw, Roscommon, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Alpena, Montmorency, Otsego, Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, Cheboygan and Presque Isle.

The Northeastern District includes counties where some whitetails are infected with TB. The prevalence rate for the disease remained at 1.7 percent during 2004, the same as it was during 2003. The percentage of infected deer has declined in spite of the fact there's a higher than 60 percent noncompliance rate with the ban on baiting in a handful of counties in that district. This would suggest that a DNR claim is false that a ban on baiting in the counties where the disease is most common is needed to eradicate TB from whitetails.

Special antler restrictions are in effect for blackpowder and archery hunters in a portion of Iosco County comprising DMU 135. Bucks are required to have at least one forked antler, with the forks being a minimum of 1-inch long to be legal.

Counties where baiting is legal in the Northeastern District offer the best chance for muzzleloader and bowhunting success. Those counties have higher deer numbers than the TB Zone where unlimited antlerless permits have been issued. Those counties are also the best option because food is uppermost on the minds of deer when the weather is cold and there's snow on the ground, so baiting can be beneficial for attracting late-season whitetails in wooded habitat.

Hunting natural food sources such as acorns, beech nuts and feral apple trees can be even better than baiting. Agricultural fields or the runways leading to them are also prime late-season hotspots. So are forested areas that have recently been

logged, and clearcuts in which new growth has created a bumper food supply.

Seven counties in the Northeastern District are open for a late-season antlerless-only firearms hunt from Dec. 19 through Jan. 1. Only private property in those seven counties is open to hunting during this season. Centerfire rifles and shotguns can be used during this hunt. The counties where this season is in effect are Presque Isle, Alpena, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Otsego and Montmorency.

Since antlerless permits are unlimited for this area, it shouldn't be difficult to get one. However, hunters new to this area need to be aware that there are free-roaming elk in some of these counties, so it's doubly important to make sure of your target. The kill during the late-season firearms hunt was down substantially during 2004 in the Northeastern District. An estimated 1,110 does and fawns were bagged there last year, which is down 38.1 percent from the 1,793 in 2003.

The Northwestern District is composed of Mecosta, Newaygo, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Osceola, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties. Southernmost counties of that district such as Newaygo, Mecosta and Osceola have the highest deer numbers. Good late-season hunting can also be found in Manistee and Wexford counties.

So it's not too late to put some venison in your freezer. Just don't forget your deer knife!

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